Many photographers get their start by taking natural light photos, then progress into experimenting with flash photography. Maybe you’ve tried a flash on top of your DSLR, only to become frustrated and disappointed from the results. If you thought those images looked bad, don't fear. There is an easy way for you to begin using a flash and achieve great results like your photography idols.
The first step is to move your flash off camera. You’ll probably want to buy a modifier, too. Let’s discuss one of the least-expensive and most versatile options you can buy: the common white umbrella diffuser.
First, let’s all get on the same page with some terminology. That will help you better understand the basics, and also help you to decipher some of the elaborate lighting schemes you may see detailed on Fstoppers.
When I say “off camera”, it means that the flash is off the camera in the most literal sense. This is not an indication of where the light has been placed relative to the photo subject, but to provide clarity on how the flash relates to the camera itself. In the purist sense, the flash unit is not directly attached to the camera body.
Now that we know the flash is going to be off camera, let’s talk about the idea of using an umbrella.
There are plenty of different brackets and stand attachments that you can use to mount your flash and umbrellas on the stand. Decide on a budget, and go for it. Do the same with your umbrella purchase. A future article will discuss some of the different umbrella size options commonly available, but today’s examples come from a standard 43-inch Westcott umbrella. It’s a good product, and is very affordable. Go buy one or two. You’ll be happy with these guys.
We are going to use radio remotes to ask the flash to fire at the proper time, but that is for another post.
Since we have the flash unit off camera, let’s establish a baseline of what our light could look like. If you choose to use the flash without an umbrella, you’re going to see what is commonly described as hard light. This is especially true if you have the flash at a distance from your subject, and aimed directly at your subject.
I’m shooting these images with a Nikon d800 and a SB900 flash. The settings are 100 ISO, f/11 and 1/250th for the shutter speed. I’m using a 50mm lens. Since we are going to be discussing the ideas of diffusion, light fall off, light spill and feathering in the future articles, I’m using a composition that will give us a good view of the background. We want to study the light on the subject, but we also need to study the light around the subject, too. Therefore, the flash is about 3 feet from the background. Our background is a standard 107-inch Savage seamless roll of paper. All in all, you are seeing what is basically the left and right edge of the roll of paper.
Obviously, the power setting of the flash unit will change to make sure we retain f/11 across the board for our examples.
So we have our background and our light, and we are trying to use our umbrella, right? We’re going to place our umbrella in front of the flash, using the umbrella as a shoot thru. Here’s what I mean what I say shoot thru: The flash is aimed so as to shoot the light through the umbrella and onto the photo subject. Here’s an example of what to do, and what not to do.
Now that we have placed the umbrella in a shoot thru position let take a look at how that changes the light produced by the flash.
Do you notice how the highlight and shadow definition are drastically different? What about the even nature of the light? With our hard, direct light, the transition from highlight to midtones to shadows can be seen and identified very clearly, right? It’s a fairly abrupt transition. Since we have diffused the light with an umbrella, you should notice now that the light is not hard or harsh, and is more even across the right of the image. Also, the transition from highlights to midtones to shadows is gradual and not as abrupt. This is what people commonly describe as soft light.
Now, still staying with our trusty white umbrella, let’s try a different position and see what that looks like. In fact, let’s just turn the umbrella around and take a look at how the light hits our background when we use the umbrella in a reflective position.
Here’s how that is set up relative to the background. Your flash is still going to be aimed at the center of your umbrella, but you won’t be aiming your flash directly at the subject. Instead, your flash will face away from the subject. Sounds a bit counterintuitive perhaps, but this will make sense, I promise. Rather than using the diffused light from the umbrella that was previously aimed right at our subject, we are going to use the diffused light that is reflecting back at our subject. Yes, even though our flash is aimed away from the subject, the umbrella is going to produce a reflected light and push that back into the frame.
OK, that’s it for this week. Check back next week and we will begin discussing positioning the umbrella relative to your subject and how that changes the light in your photos. Future articles in this series also include examples of different sized umbrellas, different positions and angles of the umbrellas, and a discussion about how the umbrella is lighting both your subject and background, among other things. If anyone has any questions, please post them below!